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CHAPTER 11.

CHAUCER AND HIS TIMES.

Age of Chaucer-His Birth and Education-Translation in the Fourteenth Century–His Early Productions-His Career-Imbued with Provençal Literature -Character of his Poems-Romaunt of the Rose-Troilus and CresseideAnachronism-House of Fame-Canterbury Tales-Plan of this Work-The Pilgrims—Proposition of the Host-Plan of the Decameron-Superiority of Chaucer's Plan-Dialogue of the Pilgrims—Knight's Tale-Squire's Tale-Story of Griselda--Comic Tales--The two Prose Tales--Rime of Sir Thopas -Parson's Tale--Language of Chaucer--The Flower and the Leaf.

Neither the plan nor the extent of the present volume will permit us to give a detailed history of all the productions, nor, indeed, even a list of all the names, which figure in the annals of English literature. It will be our aim to direct the reader's attention upon those great works and those illustrious names which form, as it were, the landmarks of the intellectual history of the country, and which gave the tone and colour to the various epochs to which they belong; exerting also, according to circumstances, an influence more or less powerful on contemporary and succeeding generations. And by this method we hope to give a clearer idea of the scope and character of English literature than we could expect to afford them by a more elaborate and detailed work, the materials for which are so abundant, that it would require not a volume but a library to develop them as they deserve.

We consider, therefore, the age of Chaucer as the true startingpoint of the English literature properly so called. In Italy letters appear to have revived after the long and gloomy period characterised by the somewhat false term of "the dark ages,” with astonishing rapidity. Like germs and seeds of plants which have lain for centuries buried deep in the unfruitful bowels of the earth, and suddenly brought up by some convulsion of nature to the surface, the intellect of Italy burst forth, in the fourteenth century, into a tropical luxuriance, putting out its fairest flowers of poetry, and its solidest and most beautiful fruits of wisdom and of wit. Dante died seven years before, and Petrarch and Boccaccio about fifty years after, the birth of Chaucer, who thus was exposed to the strongest and directest influence of the genius of these great

How great that influence was, we shall presently see. The great causes, then, which modified and directed the genius of

men.

Chaucer were-first, the new Italian poetry, which then suddenly burst forth upon the world, like Pallas from the brain of Jupiter, perfect and consummate in its virgin strength and beauty ; second, ihe now decaying_Romanz or Provençal poetry; and third, the doctrines of the Reformation, which were beginning, obscurely but irresistibly, to agitate the minds of men; a movement which took its origin, as do all great and permanent revolutions, in the lower depths of the popular heart, heaving gradually onwards, like the tremendous ground-swell of the equator, until it burst with resistless strength upon the Romish Church in Germany and in England, sweeping all before it. Wickliffe, who was born in 1324, only four years before Chaucer, had undoubtedly communicated to the poet many of his bold doctrines; the father of our poetry and the father of our reformed religion were both attached to the party of the celebrated John of Gaunt, and were both honoured with the friendship and protection of that powerful prince: Chaucer indeed was the kinsman of the Earl, having married the sister of Catherine Swinford, first the mistress and ultimately the wife of “ time-honoured Lancaster;" and the poet's varied and uncertain career seems to have faithfully followed all the vicissitudes of John of Gaunt's eventful life.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born, as he informs us himself, in London; and for the date of an event so important to the destinies of English letters, we must fix it, on the authority of the inscription upon his tomb, as having happened in the year 1328; that is to say, at the commencement of the splendid and chivalrous reign of Edward III. The honour of having been the place of his education has been eagerly disputed by the two great and ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge ; the former, however, of the two learned sisters having apparently the best established right to the maternity-or at least the fosterage—of so illustrious a nurseling. Cambridge founds her claim upon the circumstance of Chaucer's having subscribed one of his early works “Philogenet of Cambridge, clerk.” He afterwards returned to London, and there became a student of the law. His detestation of the monks appears, from a very curious document, to have begun even so early as his abode in the grave walls of the Temple; for we find the name of Jeffrey Chaucer inscribed in an ancient register as having been fined for the misdemeanour of beating a friar in Fleet Street,

The first efforts of a revival of letters will always be made in the path of translation; and to this principle Chaucer forms no exception. He was an indefatigable translator; and the whole of many—nay, a great part of all-his works bears unequivocal traces of the prevailing taste for imitation. How much he has improved upon his models, what new lights he has placed them in, with what skill he has infused fresh life into the dry bones of obscure authors, it will hereafter be our business to inquire. He was the poetical pupil of Gower, and, like Raphael and Shakspeare, he surpassed his master: Gower always speaks with respect of his illustrious pupil in the art of poetry; and, in his work entitled . Confessio Amantis, places in the mouth of Venus the following elegant compliment:

And grete wel Chaucer, when ye mete,
As my disciple and my poéte :
For in the flowers of his youth,
In sundry wise, as he well couthe,
Of ditees and of songés glade

The which he for my saké made,” &c. These lines also prove that Chaucer began early to write ; and probably our poet continued, during the whole course of his eventful life, to labour assiduously in the fields of letters.

Ilis earliest works were strongly tinctured with the manner, nay, even with the mannerism, of the age. They are much fuller of allegory than his later productions; they are distinguished by a greater parade of scholarship, and by a deeper tinge of that amorous and metaphysical mysticism which pervades the later Provençal poetry, and which reached its highest pitch of fantastical absurdity in the Arrêts d'Amour of Picardy and Languedoc. As an example of this we may cite his 'Dream,' an allegorical composition written to celebrate the nuptials of his friend and patron John of Gaunt, with Blanche, the heiress of Lancaster.

Chaucer was in every sense a man of the world: he was the ornament of two of the most brilliant courts in the annals of England—those of Edward III., and his successor Richard II. He also accompanied the former king in his expedition into France, and was taken prisoner about 1359 at the siege of Retters; and in 1367 we find him receiving from the Crown a grant of 20 marks, i. e. about 2001. of our present money.

Our poet, thus distinguished as a soldier, as a courtier, and as a scholar, was honoured with the duty of forming part of an embassy to the splendid court of Genoa, where he was present at the nuptials of Violante, daughter of Galeazzo Duke of Milan, with the Duke of Clarence. At this period he made the acquaintance of Petrarch, and probably of Boccaccio also : to the former of these illustrious men he certainly was personally known; for he hints, in his “Canterbury Tales,' his having learned from him the beautiful and pathetic tale of the Patient Griselda :

- Learned at Padua of a worthy clerke,
Francis Petrarke, the laureate poét,
Highte thys clerke, whose rhethorique sweet
Enlumined al Itale of poesy.”

It was during his peregrinations in France and Italy that Chaucer drew at the fountain-head those deep draughts from the Hippocrene of Tuscany and of Provence which flow and sparkle in all his compositions. It is certain that he introduced into the English language an immense quantity of words absolutely and purely French, and that he succeeded with an admirable dexterity in harmonizing the ruder sounds of his vernacular tongue; so successfully, indeed, that it may be safely asserted that very few poets in any modern language are more exquisitely and uniformly musical than Chaucer. Indeed, he has been accused, and in rather severe terms, of having naturalized in English "a wagonload of foreign words."

In 1380 we find Chaucer appointed to the office of Clerk of the Works at Windsor, where he was charged with overlooking the repairs about to be made in St. George's Chapel, then in a ruinous condition.

In 1383 Wickliffe completed his translation into the English language of the Bible, and his death, in the following year, seems to have been the signal for the commencement of a new and gloomy phase in the fortunes of the poet. Chaucer returned to England in 1386, and, the party to which he belonged having lost its political influence, he was imprisoned in the Tower, and deprived of the places and privileges which had been granted to him. Two years afterwards he was permitted to sell his patents, and in 1389 he appears to have been induced to abandon, and even to accuse, his former associates, of whose treachery towards him he bitterly complains.

In reward for this submission to the government, we afterwards find him restored to favour, and made, in the year 1389, Clerk of the Works at Westminster. It is at this period that he is supposed to have retired to pass the calm evening of his active life in the green shades of Woodstock, where he is related to have composed his admirable · Canterbury Tales.', This production, though, according to many opinions, neither the finest nor even the most characteristic of Chaucer's numerous and splendid poems, is yet the one of them all by which he is now best known: it is ihe work which has handed his name down to future generations as the earliest glory of his country's literature; and as such it warrants us in appealing, from the perhaps partial judgments of isolated critics, to the sovereign tribunal of posterity. The decisions of contemporaries may be swayed by fashion and prejudice; the criticism of scholars may be tinged with partiality ; but the unanimous voice of four hundred and fifty years is sure to be a true index of the relative value of a work of genius.

*Beautiful as are many of his other productions, it is the “Can-' terbury Tales' which have enshrined Chaucer in the penetralia of

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England's Glory Temple; it is to the wit, the pathos, the humanity, the chivalry of those Tales that our minds recur when our ear is struck with the venerable name of Chaucer. In 1390 we find the poet receiving the honourable charge of Clerk of the Works at Windsor; and, two years later, a grant from the Crown of 201. and a tun of wine annually. Towards the end of the century which his illustrious name had adorned, he appears to have fallen into some distress; for another document is in existence securing to the poet the protection of the Crown (probably against importunate creditors); and in 1399 we find the poet's name inserted in the lease of a house holden from the Abbot and Chapter of Westminster, and occupying the spot upon which was afterwards erected Henry VII.'s Chapel, now forming one of the most brilliant ornaments of Westminster Abbey. In this house, as is with great probability conjectured, Chaucer died, on the 25th of October, 1400, and was buried in the Abbey, being the first of that long array of mighty poets whose bones repose with generations of kings, warriors, and statesmen beneath the “long-drawn aisles" of our national Walhalla.

In reading the works of this poet the qualities which cannot fail to strike us most are-admirable truth, freshness, and livingness of his descriptions of external nature ; profound knowledge of human life in the delineation of character; and that all-embracing humanity of heart which makes him, as it makes the reader, sympathize with all God's creation, taking away from his humour every taste of bitterness and sarcasm. This humour, coloured by and springing from universal sympathy, this noblest humanity —we mean humanity in the sense of Terence's: “homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto"-is the heritage of only the greatest among mankind; and is but an example of that deep truth which Nature herself has taught us, when she placed in the human heart the spring of Laughter fast by the fountain of Tears.

We shall now proceed to examine the principal poems of Chaucer, in the hope of presenting to our readers some scale or measure of the gradual development of those powers which appear, at least to us, to have reached their highest apogee or exaltation in the Canterbury Tales.'

In the first work to which we shall turn our attention, Chaucer has given us a translation of a poem esteemed by all French critics the noblest monument of their poetical literature anterior to the time of Francis I. This is the • Romaunt of the Rose,' a beautiful mixture of allegory and narrative, of which we shall presently give an outline in the words of Warton. The Roman de la Rose' was commenced by William de Lorris, who died in 1260, and completed, in 1310, by Jean de Meun, a witty and satirical versifier, who was one of the ornaments of the brilliant

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